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Creating suspense in fiction

The latest Beyond book in the series

The latest Beyond book in the series

How many books have you read where the plot seems to flatline? Maybe the characters get too chatty. Maybe the description of characters or setting reads more like an expository. Maybe the scenes themselves are mundane. Do you then yawn?

Those spell boredom for the readers. And I see it happening in novels that are supposed to be mysteries. A village scene, instead of creating some touch of menace or at least some suspense, reads more like a slice of village life. Not all authors can do the village scene as well as the late Agatha Christie did.

There are ways your novel can get a life readers will want to read about. And just to clarify. Suspense doesn’t only equal mysteries and thrillers. All fiction needs some suspense – and that includes romance novels with their relationships. In fact, the twists and turns of relationships in any novel are fodder for creating suspense. Characters are at the core.

Here a few tips to create suspense in fiction:

  1. Start your story with something to draw in your reader. If you must have your village scene, get inside your main character’s head and show her take on the scene. Perhaps she dreads the town council meeting, the gardening club meeting, the tea, etc. Why? Or something terrible happens at the beginning at that meeting. Here’s a quick example. Marion would never call Fairfax council meetings boring again.
  2. Dialogue is good – reveals and develops characters and their interactions, as well as moves the plot forward. Unless your characters get overly chatty and go on and on for pages about religion, politics and more mundane things. All three might be relevant to your story, but add some spice, some suspense. Maybe one of the characters chatting is not making sense, seems to be high on something. More to the point, have a character reveal something startling to move the plot forward. Or have the dialogue interrupted by something happening. Depending on your story’s genre, could be somebody unexpected bursting into the room and creating chaos.
  3. Character descriptions. Forget the long expository but blend it in with the storyline and reveal something or several somethings about the POV character and other characters in this scene. In Beyond Blood, PI Dana Bowman meets Det. Sgt. Donald Fielding for the first time when her house is broken into. I show it from Dana seeing Fielding from the feet up as he comes down the basement stairs. The two clash. Dialogue and action show this and builds suspense about what could happen later on with two strong personalities trying to solve crimes when they can’t even agree on what crime happened in Dana’s basement. You can also have characters make snide remarks about another character’s hair or clothes. That would tell you something about both characters. Some narrative is necessary, but don’t drone on.
  4. Same can be said for settings. Nothing is more boring than reading paragraph after paragraph describing the main street of a town or the town itself. You aren’t writing a travel piece: you’re writing a novel or short story. In my Beyond mystery novels, I don’t just describe the town of Thurston, Ontario (fictional town), but have Dana  or her twin PI Bast  actually drive down a street, Suspense could be someone following Dana or better still she thinks someone is following her and dodges all over town to ditch the person. Or there is a collision – accident or intentional? Or if one of the twins goes into a shop or restaurant, I work in the location and relevant characters inside. “Relevant” is the key word. .

Visualize what you want and then write it for the reader to get the picture Remember: show, not tell the reader.

These are just a few suggestion. I also suggest you read published books by authors in the genre you are writing – authors who know what they are doing to create suspense within the mundane. Sometimes the latter is the most frightening.

If you click on the Beyond Blood novel above it will take you to more information about my Beyond books.

Cheers.

Sharon

 

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Following your muse when rewriting novels

The latest Beyond book in the series

The latest Beyond book in the series

The more I rewrite my third Beyond mystery book, the more I learn about fiction writing. It is not all about making sure plot line works and is consistent and that characters are believable. The muse, that nebulous creative force does factor in. And not only when you are sitting at your computer, but when you are busy doing other things.

I can be making dinner, going for a walk (although not too much of that lately with our November weather) or even be asleep, when suddenly something will pop into my head to include in my novel. Sometimes it is an answer for some plot and/or character problem. But often it is something completely different that will work. Sometimes it is a reminder about what is missing.

The latter that happened with me is about my main character, PI Dana Bowman and is about including more emotion with her, especially after she suffers a severe trauma at the end of Part 1 in the novel. The novel’s first chapter has her feelings upfront and centre. She is feeling down and the weather (rain in November no less) is making it worse. She also runs into Don Fielding, the Detective Sergeant she met in Beyond Blood and where she ignored their attraction to each other. So, that comes up in the beginning of the new novel.

I have included the aftermath of her traumatic experience – emotional and physical but something still needs to be included near the end and the end of the novel. And so, the elusive muse brought this to me as well as an idea of how to write it.

Lesson learned? Let your mind (and body, too) go on to non-writing activities and get some sleep to give the muse the space to show up.

We writers need all the help we can get. Unlike some writers who claim they hate writing, I love writing, no matter how difficult it can sometimes get. What I don’t like is all the other stuff I have to do and the time it takes.

Well, now I have found something positive about doing housework, but with a disclaimer here. I do like to cook (and eat too), partly because it is something creative.

So, does doing one thing that is creative help another thing that is creative?

Speaking about Muses and being creative, a reminder for those in the Toronto, Ontario area. This Saturday, November 26 I will be participating in the Toronto Heliconian Club’s Gifts from the Muses Show and Sale – selling my Beyond books and reading an excerpt from Beyond Blood at the end of the 2 p.m. entertainment session – I’m after the musician then. More details here.

And if you can’t make it, the Beyond Blood icon at the top of this post links to my amazon profile – which also shows the Beyond the Tripping Point short story collection. Might make good Christmas gifts.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

Gift of the Muses Show and Sale

Gift of the Muses Show and Sale

 

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More on your setting in fiction

The latest Beyond book in the series

The latest Beyond book in the series

Besides actual location, setting also includes information peculiar to what is happening in the location. For example, in my novel Beyond Blood, the main character PI Dana Bowman goes sailing with Detective Sergeant Donald Fielding. Fielding has been sailing for years but this is Dana’s first time aboard a large sailboat – more like a small yacht. So I combined my limited sailing background with checking in with an expert in this area and also some reading online and in books about sailing..

A few years ago I wrote a newspaper story on a fellow, a seasoned sailor, who was planning to sail at least partway around the world. His “sailboat” (the small yacht type) was anchored in the Harbourfront area of Toronto Harbour. I made an appointment to interview him for the story and met him on his boat. When I arrived he was swabbing the deck.

I told him I was also going to ask a few extra questions for background information for a novel I was writing. He gave me the boat tour – it is amazing what can be packed into the small enclosed area below – everything from a small kitchen to a bathroom to a place to sleep. He was very informative but he did not take me out on Lake Ontario. So, I had to go back a few years when my son, still a child, and I went sailing with my friend and her boyfriend – for the feel of it, to remember you always wear a life jacket when on a sailboat, to how the winds affect the sailing, to falling into the water. No, I (who can’t swim) didn’t fall in, but my friend, a good swimmer did. She was okay with her life jacket on and just laughed about it as she swam the short distance back to the boat and climbed back aboard. But it gave me information for Beyond Blood although no one falls in the water.

So when Dana first goes out on the water with Fielding, I work it in as a friendly lesson while avoiding making it an expository or Sailing 101. Here is a short excerpt:

“Here put on a life jacket.” He handed me one which I donned. Fielding put on the other one and shoved the cooler under the floor. “Please sit down while I hoist the sail.”

” Need any help?”

“No.” He looked into my face. “Fine, but you have to obey orders if you want to crew.”

“Aye, aye sir.” I saluted,

Fielding moved away and moved into what resembled a cockpit, lowered the centreboard and removed the tarp, exposing two sails.”

“Here, store the tier below deck.”

“Huh?”

Fielding pointed to where the cooler rested. Taking hold of the tier, I folded it and placed it below deck.

“Maybe I’ll just watch this time.” I sat down on one of the benches.  (From Beyond  Blood, copyright Sharon A. Crawford, 2014, Blue Denim Press)

Dana does help more a bit later. The whole chapter is not about learning to sail as Fielding and Dana also use the time to find out more about each other until…

Well, I’m not going to say what happens or how this chapter ends.You’ll have to read Beyond Blood to find out. Click on the book cover at the top to find out one of the places the book is available. For now,  I’ll just say that later in the novel, Dana has to use her sailing knowledge to try to save a family member. So, the first sailing episode was not just a respite from all the murder and mayhem, but also served a purpose – showing how Dana learns something about sailing so that when she has to use it in a life-threatening situation, it is not a skill pulled out of air with a quick explanation such as “I (Dana) learned to swim a few years ago” tacked on to it.

That is something else to remember. You may have more leeway in a novel to go off on so-called tangents, but make sure they have something to do with character development and plot – especially in mystery novels.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

 

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Writing through complicated novel plots

Sharon A. Crawford's latest in the Beyond series

Sharon A. Crawford’s latest in the Beyond series

Sometimes novel plots can get away from you, especially if like me, you write mysteries or thrillers. Even doing an outline before starting to write won’t stop potential confusion for several reasons.

Characters, especially the main ones, have a habit of taking over the novel and that means directing the plot. Which can be a good thing, because it shows that your novel has life. But when, like me in my Beyond mystery series, you have more than one point of view  character, you not only have to deal with one rogue character, but sometimes two. Dana Bowman the main character in Beyond Blood is an outspoken willful PI with a mind of her own. Her fraternal twin brother, Bast Overture her partner in solving crime is a bit tamer. But he is a former crime reporter and the words “reporter” and “journalist’ send out flares of “digging up the dirt.”

So with two nosy-parkers on the loose (often working somewhat separately) and adding in some other characters such as police Detective-Sergeant Donald Fielding and Dana’s six or seven-year old son (age depending on which book), this author is often juggling a lot of plot development.

A disclaimer: I don’t do much of an outline beforehand. Sure, I have some idea of where I want the story to go, but I find if I do too much outline or summary I seem to automatically switch to write-the-novel mode and I’m off in that direction for then.

So, what do I do to try to keep the plot consistent and making some sense?

I do some flipping back and forth to check – maybe after the day’s writing session or perhaps just before I start writing the next time. Or as often happens a couple of niggling plot developments are in my mind and I need to sort them out. So I use the Word “Find” tool to go to these plot developments and from there do one or two things:

Make a note either in brackets in red in the paragraph or whole scene or with the Comment tool about what needs to be changed. I also keep separate files on some areas of plot development that come up and/or I want to put in. Not exactly an outline, but more of a description of what I’m trying to do…at that point. Until Dana and/or Bast step in.

When all else fails I just go in there and make the changes/corrections.

With two PIs I have to make sure they don’t overlap in what they do – unless they are actually doing some of their investigation together. When working alone, they have to keep each other informed of what they find or the reader could wonder “How did he know that?” And do it without long conversations between the two. Sometimes they leave each other phone messages or sometimes I use a couple of short narrative sentences, such as “Bast brought Dana up to speed.”

It gets even trickier in the current Beyond novel I’m rewriting when one of the twins suffers a concussion.

But, hey I like a challenge. It is one of the things that makes writing fiction interesting.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

Click on the Beyond Blood book at the top to go to my amazon author profile and books.

To see what I’m up to with the Beyond books and characters check out the Gigs and Blog Tours page of this blog here

 

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Can fictional characters teach readers something?

Sharon A. Crawford's latest in the Beyond series

Sharon A. Crawford’s latest in the Beyond series

Readers read novels to be entertained. However, life isn’t all about entertainment. We want to learn more, to grow, to live a better life.

Can fiction help here? I think so. If you have credible fiction characters who live lives like readers. And it doesn’t matter what genre the novel is written in. For example, science fiction can present us with a future we might just not want, with the underlying story of just how it can play out. This requires believable characters who deal with these situations. Built into a good sci-fic story are elements of present time – such as law enforcement professionals and your every-day person like divorced parents, seniors, etc. Sometimes the professionals and the single mom are one and the same person. Although the characters have problems peculiar to a future  time period to deal with; like us now, they have common day-to-day problems as well. So the reader can identify with the story and the characters and get a satisfied read. A science fiction author who does this very well is Robert Sawyer. Read any of his books to see how he handles it. And many of his novels also have murder in them.

In the mystery genre, there is a series by J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts pseudonym) where the novels are set in the future. So the reader not only gets policing in the future,but also something many of us now balance – a career and a marriage.

In somewhat current time (in the late 1990s), my novel Beyond Blood, has characters that are representative of real-life characters. I have the fraternal twins (which may not be so common) Sebastian (Bast) Overture who is gay and Dana Bowman who is a divorced mother of a six-year old boy. Readers have told me that it is this relationship between mother and son that they relate to because they find it not only interesting but compelling. Of course, not all six-year olds are kidnapped (thank God), but here I have taken a universal relationship, that of a mother and son, and escalated it into the “what if?” area, where a mother is pushed to the edge to find her son before it is too late. And because Dana is human she may try to forge ahead as a professional PI and push her fear and other feelings back inside, we know that in real life this just doesn’t happen. She is conflicted, and yes she does lose it at times.

And that’s the key to writing fiction to teach a lesson. You need both realistic characters that readers can identify with and a plot that grabs readers.You need characters that are human, because we are human. This way you can show readers what your characters are like, what they are made of – but heightened to situations beyond what you would deal with in your life.

Remember, readers want to also be entertained.

You can read for yourself how Dana Bowman handles all her problems with her son’s kidnapping and all the complexities that occur, from an ex-husband who shows up as a suspect, to the stuttering Detective Sergeant Donald Fielding whom she is attracted to, to ….well, you may just have to read Beyond Blood to find out. Click on the book icon at the top for more info.

And I have a new website with a much different website design, thanks to Martin Crawford, computer software expert and Juni Bimm, graphic artist. The website text is purely my doing. So take a look here

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

 

 

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Making your fiction characters sick

Sharon A. Crawford's latest in the Beyond series

Sharon A. Crawford’s latest in the Beyond series

I’ve talked before about giving your fiction characters tags such as jangling keys in their pocket or going silent when someone starts arguing with them. These tags show character traits and help the reader connect better with them. The first trait mentioned might occur when the character is impatient and the second opens a lot of things the author can show about the character. It might be as simple as the character hates arguing but he or she might be afraid to speak up when challenged. Both those bring up the question “Why?” in the reader’s mind. And give the author leeway to build his or her character.

Another trait that can be used is health issues – good or bad. Maybe you want your character to be an extreme fitness buff. Maybe he is passionate about playing golf. But the flip side of the coin can present even more interesting character tags – the character’s illness or an injury – the latter maybe occurring during the story. For example, the late Robert Parker in one of his Spencer novels had Spencer get shot in the chest and part of the novel dealt with his recovery and how it affected him both professionally and personally.

In my Beyond novel, Beyond Blood, I give Detective Sergeant Donald Fielding an affliction no one really wants – migraines. I know of where I write here because when I was in my early 30s (back in the grey ages, of course), I had migraines with almost the whole enchilada in symptoms. Didn’t have the aura but I did get sick to my stomach and of course the pain. And lots of treatments were tried and not all worked or were only temporary. Then there was the personal and professional repercussions. I had to postpone story interviews with subjects because I had a migraine, and one of the treatment options – blowing in a brown bag, supposedly to stop the pain (it didn’t work), was done around the kitchen table during a big party I held. My girlfriend who suggested that was coaching me and there were some onlookers around the table.

Which gave me lots of options for Fielding, I combined my personal experience with imagination for his migraine attack. Not a party, not a kitchen, but in the main character Dana Bowman’s bedroom. That’s all I’ll say about that scene except the cause of the migraine was the same as many of mine were – stress.

So you can use your personal health experience for one of your characters in your novel or short story. Just make sure it is worked into the plot and isn’t a tangent. And yes, Fielding’s migraine incident was part of the plot. Also, it could be a friend’s illness, but just make sure if the illness is yours or your friend’s that the character doesn’t turn into a copy of you or your friend. Use the illness as a character tag.

And next Thursday, March 24, I’ll be joining four other Crime Writers of Canada authors for a lively panel discussion and q and a about what and how we write. Here are the details:

Murder and Mayhem between the (book covers) at Gerrard/Ashdale library branch

March 24, 2016

Join five Crime Writers of Canada authors Sharon A. Crawford, Steve Shrott, Lisa de Nikolits (three mystery novelists) and Mark Eddy and Nate Hendley (both true crime authors) for a lively discussion about crime writing and their books. Sharon moderates this panel and the authors just might read a bit from their books. More information.

Location: Gerrard/Ashdale Toronto Public Library branch

1432 Gerrard St. E., Toronto

Time and Date: 6.30 p.m. to 8 p.m., Thursday, March 24, 2016

Maybe I’ll see some of you there.

Cheers.

Sharon

If you click on the book cover at the top, it will take you to one place where my Beyond books area available.

 

 

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Transitioning the real into the reel (fiction)

 

Sharon A. Crawford's latest in the Beyond series

Sharon A. Crawford’s latest in the Beyond series

Sometimes we go through tremendous ordeals in our lives. Often it is because of a big change – a death in the family, relationship breakup, personal illness, or being the victim of a crime.

Writing about it is often a way to heal and tell our story to others. A journal, personal essay or even a non-fiction article encompassing the ordeal is more fact, more actual with a story (and viewpoint included).

But what if you want to fictionalize it? Do you present details and people as they happened? Do you change people’s names and some details? How can you go about it?

Authors do it several ways. You do have to be concerned with libel – especially if the fiction is more fact than fiction. An author colleague is very particular here because she ran into libel issues a couple of times in the past – no libel involved, but it can scare you and serve as a warning.

Other authors use the “based on…” line.

Some write what they want and use the “Any resemblance to living persons, etc.” disclaimer.

I am a bit liberal about my approach. For the most part I sometimes take something from my life as a basis for a story – but the characters aren’t me or whomever else appeared and the story definitely is different. For example, in my short story collection Beyond the Tripping Point, one story deals with two female friends who have problems with a car brake that won’t work as they drive up to the cottage. This happened to a friend and I about 30 years ago. All my friend had to contend with was the brakes failing. She used the parking brake and we were in and out of gas stations looking for a bay to get the problem fixed. That’s where truth ends. What happens in “No Breaks” is well, crime fiction.

But I do up the ante sometimes if someone has really messed up with my life. When I told this story at a recent Crime Writers of Canada reading, I could just feel the other author mentioned above cringe. (I was looking at the audience, not her, so didn’t actually see her face).

There is a way to do this. One of the characters in one of my short stories in Beyond the Tripping Point is loosely based on this real-life person – only the age is in the same decade and I saw her features, her way of dressing in my mind. But from the minimal description I gave of her, she could be any person in that age bracket fitting that description. I kept her in the same work industry but a different job. Yes, she was one of the suspects, but I won’t tell you if she was the guilty one.

A bit of background here – the person (yes a family member) objected to me writing and getting published family stories as memoir but she said I could fictionalize any of it. So, I did a variation of that.

In Beyond Blood, a couple of characters, Detective Sergean tDonald  Fielding and Great Aunt Doris Bowman are loosely on people I have known – but none of them messed up my life. The first one I liked and the second one was an interesting person. Dana Bowman, my main character, is she based on me? Not exactly. For one thing she is 25 years younger than me. True, we are both short in stature, but I made her shorter, something she is a bit peeved about. Let’s just say Dana tends to boldly go where I just might not do so.

So, it is not all cut and dry about going from real to reel. Just consider that even when your fiction has nothing to do with real life, at least any you have experienced, read about or seen, there is always somebody who will insist that a character in your story is based on them.

Usually they are wrong. Perhaps they have a latent wish to be immortalized in some way.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

Click on the Beyond Blood cover at the top to find out where copies are available

 

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